“Stella has no idea where she has come from. She senses it might be an unhappy place, a door she might not want to open. But no one’s entire past can be unhappy, can it? It might contain unhappy events or a tendency toward melancholy, but the whole cannot be miserable.” Stella Bain.
I have just finished a book called Stella Bain, by Anita Shreve. It is the story of a WWI-era woman who awakens in a field hospital in France with no idea who she is. The book chronicles her return to memory and to her life. It is a lovely book. If I knew nothing about who had written it, I think I would easily guess it was written by a woman, around my age, who is a mother, and who has been both lucky and unlucky in love. I woke early this morning with an overwhelming desire to get up and finish it. I woke thinking about the nature of memory.
What is memory? And for me, the deeper question is, how much of what I perceive as “me” is actually my memories, good and bad? If I became amnesic at this moment, what would my life be? I would still eat and sleep, I would take in sensations and process them, I would still be able to do basic activities, and I might, like Stella, know that there were certain skills I had. For her, driving an ambulance, nursing, and drawing were abilities that remained intact, and served to bring structure to her days. But she was lost, and she knew it. Her mind struggled and strained to find her past. And it was only as she came back to herself that she truly began to live intentionally and with purpose again.
When I think about memory, and how it is the underpinning and substance of what I think of as my “self”, it is curious to me that so few (relatively speaking) actual discrete memories are available to me. I have been a mother for over twenty-seven years now, and I would say I remember all these years with great clarity. But what does that mean? I have many specific memories, but most of it is lost in a happy haze. I don’t remember the hard or sad or distressing moments very well at all, with the exception of a few very vivid memories of trips to the emergency room. I can’t access feeling angry or irritated with my children although I know I was. Much of what I think I remember I know is due to the fact that I have books and books of photographs which I have looked at repeatedly. And yet such a large part of my sense of myself is that of being a mother, of loving my children, of having enjoyed their childhood intensely, although I know I was often exhausted, irritable, and only wanting a bit of rest or time to myself so desperately!
I look at their intelligent, lively adult faces and bodies now and can hardly credit that they were once tiny formless infants that I held in my arms for hours, that they were busy toddlers, and lanky six year olds with limitless energy, and often obnoxious and resentful middle schoolers-I cannot put the two together in any real way. It seems like a dream. But they are all those people, all those stages, all that time and their own memories, however hazy. It is such a strange mystery.
It is like my memories are leaves of some hallucinogenic plant that I have chewed and chewed and let sit under my tongue in a paste until they are absorbed into my bloodstream. The actual memories or leaves do not survive in any discernible form, but they set off powerful visions, and awake my deepest spiritual self, my strongest emotions, my most colorful dreams. And it is like this about all my memories, and it is what makes me most truly myself-the part that if I forgot it all, would cease to moor me to existence. I would become a sentient beast that continued to eat and drink and void and sleep and move, but would be lost and alone.
What do I remember? Of my childhood: my dogs, the ubiquitous presence of my mother, a warm and comforting thing; the strength of my father’s arms;the scent of lilac bushes outside my bedroom window and the sound of spring peepers; my horses; childhood hurts and some traumas, but their intensity is greatly diminished; the long summers; the silent snowfall; waiting for Christmas morning; the loving atmosphere of my grandparents’ home; losing Charlotte.
Of college? Not much-I was never very happy in that time and I let the memories slip away into the past like boats loosed from their moorings in a foggy darkness. I remember my feet pounding the pavement and the joy I experienced as I became a runner-realizing I could do mile after mile and how it freed my mind.
Of my first marriage? A dogged determination to be a grownup although I felt very much like a child who is lost and afraid. Discontent and resignation, and then a desperate need for escape. A lingering sense of failure and regret for pain I caused.
Of my happy second marriage, having kids and living in the suburbs of Ohio? A coming into who I was made to be-of being bathed in love and acceptance until I was cleansed of self-hatred-becoming a songwriter, a teacher, ceasing to apologize and letting go of a deep seated sense of inadequacy and insufficiency, of ugliness and undesirability; lying in bed in summer listening to the haunting repertoire of a cardinal’s vocalizations-seeing that flash of red darting through an impossibly green landscape; funny how so much of this entails memories of internal events, of feelings rather than occurrences. Even the cardinal memory is mostly about a feeling.
Of moving to Colorado? A sense of surfacing from being underwater; the empty clear air, the arid glory of the desert, how it has both softened and toughened me; a sense of smallness coupled with a serenity in that knowledge; utter raw and wild beauty; learning to be alone in more ways than I can count; deep friendship with my husband; letting go of my children and receiving them back again, no longer mine.
Are these even memories? How do I categorize these things? But they are who I am and they are made up most surely of memory. Memory turned to personality to a ground of being. And so vulnerable to the physicality of my fragile mind. That is the strangest thing of all.
‘ “Do you remember everything?” she asks.
“Every moment, no.”
“I wish I could…”
She leans her head again his shoulder. He encircles her waist with his arms. What is it, after all, that she has done with her life? She had children and found them again. She fell in love at nineteen and again at forty-two. She tried to be an independent woman. She has earned her living by making pictures, some that disturb, some that please.’ Stella Bain.